Hit Me One More Time

February 12, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

What is the truest measure of Internet traffic? Once upon a time, that was an easy question to answer: the so-called "hit." Everyone used the term without really understanding what it meant. (Remember the ubiquitous odometer-like web counters?) Nowadays, the "hit" is arguably the most unreliable measure of judging traffic, yet it is still commonly used. There's a reason for that: traffic inflation. People are impressed by large numbers and the easiest way to get those (without resorting to outright lies) is by using "hits." To the layman, the "hit" is a legitimate stat. To anyone who runs a website, it hasn't been for perhaps ten years (if it ever truly was).

Time to explain and illustrate. Numbers quoted from ReelViews are genuine, not made up. There are essentially four methods by which web traffic can be measured: hits, page views, visitors, unique visitors. All mean different things and lead to different results. A "hit" is any request for a file from a web server. On the ReelViews homepage, hits nclude not only the main page but various graphics and advertisements as well. Across my site, the ratio is about 8:1 - eight hits for every page loaded. A "page view" is pretty much what the term implies: how many times a single page is loaded (irrespective of the number of hits on that page). If someone comes to ReelViews, starts at the homepage and reads two reviews and one ReelThought, that's four page views. "Visitors" refers to the number of people who have stopped by the site. Regardless of how many pages are downloaded during a visit, it's just a single visitor. "Unique visitors" is a little more restrictive since it counts repeat accesses to a site by the same IP as a single visit rather than as multiple visits. When describing traffic for ReelViews, I use "unique visitors" not only because it's the most conservative method of measuring interest in the site but because it is, in my view, the most meaningful.

So what are my numbers? For this month, I have averaged about 300,000 hits per day, which translates into 40,000 page views, 12,200 visitors, and 8900 unique visitors. So, if you want the number I consider to be my true circulation, it's 8900 people per day.

When it comes to things like advertising, however, not everyone plays by the same rules. While I quote 8900, others might quote 50,000 or 100,000. They're referring to hits; I'm referring to unique visits. Even though their traffic flow is perhaps a quarter of what mine is, it appears to be five or ten times greater because of the apples-to-oranges factor.

Counter-intuitive though it may be, there is not a direct correlation between traffic and advertisement-generated revenue. There have been times when I have made less in a day when traffic was up as much as 30%. One of the random factors is clicks on ads. The more clicks, the better the per-ad payout (this is especially true of Google), and that can change the entire dynamic. But there's also the simple fact that some advertisers pay better than others.

Some have wondered whether the forums are being created as another avenue to generate revenue. The simple answer: no. Every forum page has exactly one banner advertisement. By design, the pages are not cluttered with ads; they're relatively clean. The forums are designed to be a community for interaction between ReelViews readers and me. If I make any extra money from them, it won't be much. But I hope their inclusion will drive more traffic to the main site. Stagnation is probably the #1 killer of websites. Sites that do not grow and evolve will disappear. Every change I have made to ReelViews over the past year has been with that simple rule in mind. I cannot at this time say whether this site will still exist in ten years' time, but I want to give it a fighting chance.

The Amazon.com buttons are designed to generate revenue. A word of explanation is perhaps in order… If you click on a button, go to Amazon, and buy something (it doesn't have to be the item for which you clicked), I get a commission. If you just click-through then exit without buying, I don't get anything. (So there's no purpose in clicking and leaving, hoping I'll get paid for the click. Google ads work that way. Amazon buttons do not.) So if you want to support ReelViews this way, an easy step is if you plan to order from Amazon, use one of the ReelViews links to click through. Or, if you want to support another site and they have a relationship with Amazon or a similar vendor, do that with them.

Back to traffic… One thing I can measure based on my usage of "unique visitors" as a traffic metric is how popular a week's movie roster is with the audience that comprises my core readership. While a variety of things impact the numbers - frequency of ReelThoughts updates, number of new reviews, addition of a video review - nothing causes a more noticeable spike than when a movie is released that has the Internet community abuzz. Cloverfield is a great example. On the day it was released, I received 35,000 unique visitors, but the number of page views was less than 70,000 - well down from the usual 4:1 ratio. A lot of people went to the site exclusively to read the Cloverfield review, then moved on.

Does all this mean anything? And why am I writing about it? Two diverse sources inspired this column. The first was Daniel Lyons' "Techtonic Shifts" piece in the February 16, 2009 issue of Newsweek magazine. The second was an e-mail exchange with a potential advertiser who bounced me because of "low traffic." (He didn't understand the difference between "hits" and "unique visits." Even after I explained it, I don't think he understood. This is a problem with some old school marketing people who really don't comprehend how the Internet works. They use buzzwords without understanding what they mean. )

Lyons' point is an interesting one: that many blogs aren't fetching enough money to make them profitable. This is something I wrestle with every day, but wishing I could shed the day job and make ReelViews my full-time profession isn't the same as acting on that desire. Some day, my hand may be forced, but ReelViews is not a gold mine, nor is it ever likely to be. However, there are some avenues not yet explored. I'm holding those in reserve until I really need them.

It's not entirely unreasonable to assume that, should ReelViews continue to survive, the space devoted to ads might decrease. There's a point at which something doesn't pay well enough to earn its position as an admitted eyesore. The Google ads represent a tremendous source of income when readers click them, but the same cannot be said for some of the others. Should those non-Google ad rates drop too low (something that hasn't happened yet except in a small number of cases), they risk becoming a liability. I watch these things. That's the business side of ReelViews.

At 8900 unique visitors per day, ReelViews qualifies as a small site, but it has a surprisingly long reach. I appreciate my 36 readers in Nigeria, my seven readers in Myanmar, my two readers in Greenland, my 635 readers in Iceland, my six readers in Afghanistan, and my 41 readers in Iraq. All-in-all, ReelViews is read in 178 countries and territories around the globe, even appearing on computer screens in Antarctica. It can be a little overwhelming to understand how far and wide it goes. A review I write while sipping a cup of coffee at 9 a.m. might be read by someone in China several hours later. When considered in those terms, traffic numbers don't mean that much. I got an e-mail from a man who had just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. He told me that a few months ago he read a review for a movie and decided at that moment that it would be the first film he would see upon returning to the United States. True to his word, he picked it up on DVD the day after he got home and watched it with his wife. So, yes, advertising revenue is important. But things like that mean a lot more. And, as I have learned, it's better to have a smaller, loyal community of readers than a larger, fickle one.

Hopefully, many of you reading this will stop by the forums when they open on Valentine's Day (I'm shooting for about 3 p.m. EST). You can become an active member and post. You can remain a voyeur and peek. Or you can ignore them altogether, if you prefer the "one way communication" experience of ReelViews. The site will continue to evolve and hopefully that evolution will allow it to accrue rather than shed faithful readers along the way.